In Cambridge, innovation economy is a K-12 classroom

Partnerships with businesses and universities give students real-world experience

IN THE CITY of Cambridge, the learning that begins anew this time of the year goes beyond textbooks, exams, and the classroom itself. That’s because of the Cambridge Public School (CPS) system’s unique and abundant partnerships with the city’s business community and institutions, partnerships that provide students with opportunities to apply their teachers’ lessons in real-world environments through hands-on programs and interactions with professionals in the knowledge economy.

These organizations recognize the symbiotic benefits of a strong and vibrant Cambridge. CPS partners invest in a local workforce pipeline, helping to ensure Cambridge’s students are ready for tomorrow’s jobs.

In 2002, Biogen established The Community Lab, a hands-on lab space that targets local middle and high school students, believing that if young people are exposed to STEM concepts early they will be motivated to excel in school and understand science and research-related career opportunities that are available in their own community. Since then, over 50,000 students have participated in the Community Lab, and Biogen has shared its playbook with other institutions that have since replicated its education and career exploration model.

When Novartis expanded its Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research campus, there was a concerted effort to invite neighbors to engage with the world-class research going on inside the buildings they frequently pass. The global pharmaceutical company created its Community Exploration & Learning Lab (CELL), a fully dedicated authentic laboratory space designed to teach Cambridge’s middle and high school students about biology and math concepts that connect their classroom curricula directly to the research happening at Novartis. Since opening in spring 2016, CELL at Novartis has engaged over 2,600 students in school day, after school, and summer programs.

Opportunities like these are unique to Cambridge because of the concentration of resources and expertise we are so fortunate to host. Many other communities can offer comparable experiences, but they reach a relatively small population of students. In Cambridge, these experiences are provided to every student. They can learn what it’s like to work in a cutting-edge research facility and speak directly with industry leaders without leaving the city.

With few students of color or from low-income backgrounds pursuing jobs in the knowledge economy, these partnerships tackle industry-wide challenges of representation by emphasizing equity and inclusion and highlighting diverse professionals. Local partnerships also strive to address the gender gap in IT, life sciences, and other fields. For example, MIT hosts a public Women In STEM database to highlight women in research positions who are available for speaking opportunities.

These investments in education go well beyond the students. In fact, the entire CPS district benefits. Teachers’ classroom curricula are supplemented by programs they shape with local businesses and institutions. Cambridge teachers can also further their own education with professional development opportunities at Harvard and MIT at reduced or no cost. This makes Cambridge an attractive option for talented teachers looking for a new school district to join, and Cambridge wins when the best and brightest want to make the city their professional home.

Additionally, local businesses and institutions are working with CPS to advance current educational priorities. For example, doctoral students from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education are available to the superintendent’s office to support key strategic initiatives. Similarly, the “near peer” learning model that is a priority at CPS has been baked into MIT’s newly established Freshman Technology Experience, which includes training Cambridge Rindge and Latin School juniors and seniors to instruct first-year high school students in computational literacy. CPS also recently partnered with faculty from Harvard’s Kennedy School to launch a new civics curriculum, which will be a model for the Commonwealth.

In the last few years, there’s been a greater emphasis on coordination and scaling these partnerships in order to maximize impact. An excellent illustration of this is Biogen Foundation’s STAR (Science, Teacher support, Access and Readiness) Initiative, which has brought six nonprofits working with students and educators in Cambridge and Somerville together to align outcomes, and share experiences and resources. The STAR Initiative began in 2018 and includes a $10 million, four-year investment in the nonprofits. Meanwhile, MIT created a new role, K-12 Community Outreach Administrator, to build relationships and processes that will ensure equitable access to K-12 educational programs at the Institute.

Meet the Author

David Maher

President & CEO, Cambridge Chamber of Commerce
Meet the Author

Kenneth Salim

Superintendent, Cambridge Public Schools
These examples represent a fraction of the many ongoing investments in the CPS system being made by a wide range of companies in the city and demonstrate the deep commitment our businesses and institutions have to strengthening the quality of education and expanding opportunities for residents. We are proud of the collaboration, investment, and creativity that combines to build a more vibrant Cambridge.

David Maher is president and CEO of the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce. Kenneth Salim is superintendent of Cambridge Public Schools.